Hubert Burda Media

A People Person

HIAN GOH, the 2011 inaugural winner of the DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige award catches up with Dazzlyn Koh to talk about his current obsession — investing in people

Ask Hian Goh, whether he considers himself a visionary and the 40-year-old balks.
“That’s way too big a word,” says Goh, the highly energetic and chatty co-founder of the Asian Food Channel (AFC) and a newly established venture capital firm, Silicon Island. “You just have to take one step at a time, push the envelope incrementally and then you’ll get to your destination,” he adds.
Modest words of wisdom, really, from one of Singapore’s celebrated local entrepreneurs who has more than 15 years of entrepreneurship and investment experience. So bankable is he that over the years, he has received phone calls from would-be investors offering blank cheques. “They would say to me, what are you doing now? Whatever it is you’re doing, we’ll fund you.”
His biggest deal to date has been selling the widely popular AFC for US$66 million to American media giant Scripps Networks Interactive last year. Goh — who holds an Oxford law degree and an Insead MBA, and was previously an investment banker — had set up the channel in 2005 with Briton Maria Brown. A 24-hour pay-TV channel, it was the first-ever food television channel to broadcast pan-regionally in Asia. For its achievements of reaching over 130 million viewers in 12 countries including Brunei, Singapore and South Korea, Goh was recognised for his innovation and entrepreneurial spirit with the DBS Insignia and Prestige co-administered DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige award in 2011.
Given the channel’s triumphs, people were shocked when he first announced the sale of AFC. But having been with the channel for eight years and seeing it through ups and downs, including the 2008 financial crisis — “If I took my shirt off, you’d see a lot of scars,” he jokes — he felt the time was ripe to embark on a new challenge. “It’s always difficult to sell your own company. But the reality of being an entrepreneur is always having to reinvent yourself,” he muses.
According to Goh, there was so much interest in AFC that they had to run an auction to sell it to the highest bidder. “It was a bittersweet moment but I was glad that Scripps won the bid as they were on a growth strategy to build into the region then. It was what I always envisioned for the AFC.”
Today, he’s on the other side of the fence managing Silicon Island, the venture arm of Northstar — a private equity firm based in Singapore which manages over US$1.2 billion — with former investment banker Shane Chesson. Together, they target tech and digital media start-ups to provide the first round of venture capital after initial seed funding.
More specifically, the firm is looking to invest in 15 to 20 start-ups in finance, healthcare and other areas over the next six years. Both founders previously invested in local start-ups such as e-grocer Redmart, online restaurant booking service Chope and data company Crayon Data, all of which will be transferred to Silicon Island.
Goh chose the venture capitalist route because of the burgeoning scene in Southeast Asia such as Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.
“You have to be first on the ground to capture the opportunity. I want us to be known as the team that was here before it was clearly known that Southeast Asia is a very bankable market for venture capitalists.”
In his signature chinos, glasses and motorised kick scooter that he rides to work every morning, Goh looks every bit the typical tech entrepreneur who would fit in perfectly in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley. It comes as no surprise then, given the firm’s choice of name, that Goh envisions Singapore becoming an Asian Silicon Valley of sorts. After all, there is a conducive setting here for entrepreneurs with the ease of doing business and a strong rule of law among other factors, he says.
But what’s lacking, he feels, are talent and proper capital management. The tide is slowly turning for the former, he notes with more people choosing Singapore as a base to start a business. “I work with many Americans, Filipinos, Indians and Australians who are based here. They add to the DNA and will hopefully become Singaporeans in the future.”
As for the perennial question of whether Singaporeans are entrepreneurial enough, he shares that he “isn’t too worried”, having increasingly met fresh graduates from local universities who reject good jobs from Google, Facebook and banks to found start-ups instead.
“Not all will be successful, but I will argue that this explosive entrepreneurial spirit is here to stay. These enterprising youngsters are the ones to push boundaries and go out there into the world. That gets me excited — all I have to do is find out who they are and invest in them.”
A more pressing problem, in his opinion, is the lack of skill when it comes to managing capital for start-ups. There is a need for more investors with foresight — those who are able to make good decisions even when it is not 100-percent clear on how the potential start-up’s business model is like or where it will evolve to, elaborates Goh. Being able to weigh that and still see the potential of the business is key to successful venture capital funding.
Case in point: Goh tells us that he and Chesson strategically invested in Redmart (now worth at least S$5 million and expanding with plans to open in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong this year according to The Next Web) ahead of other noted investors including Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin. The duo was a significant investor of the online retailer at the time of the round as well. “We had the vision that Redmart was going to make it big. Today, they’re making us look really smart,” he says with a grin.
Given the track record, he is swarmed with requests to meet and pitch. So how does he weed out the good from the bad? “I look for a great team — a group of people who have different skills and viewpoints but are united; and I spend a lot of time evaluating the human side of things.” By that, he means that his potential investees must be tenacious, responsible and self-learning individuals.
“As venture capitalists, we do not have the time to teach or guide. We have to get people who fight to make their own way forward.”
The greatest satisfaction he gets from his job — apart from the kick he gets out of cheekily being able to say “I told you so” when the business bears fruit — is helping others to realise their dreams. To Goh, it is a form of giving back to the community that has always been supportive in his own entrepreneurial ventures.
His advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Vision is tough. If you choose to have one, commit and live up to it daily,” he says.
In the same vein, Goh confides that he was honoured to receive the DBS award, which to him celebrates vision in the right perspective. “It is worth rejoicing when there are people who are willing to give up their time, effort and energy to achieve their vision. Why? Because vision is critical in moving the human race forward.”
The next recipient of the DBS Insignia Spirit of Vision Prestige Award will be revealed this month at the Prestige 14th Anniversary Ball.